Archive for November, 2014

Last week I went on a fascinating tour of the Bishopsgate Institute Library, kindly organised by CLSIG.

Bishopsgate Institute libraryTo be honest, I hadn’t heard of the Bishopsgate Institute before, but it is basically an education centre that provides courses and lectures, along with being a venue for debates and concerts and other events. The Chief Librarian, who very kindly provided the tour, described it as originally a Victorian self-help centre for adults, which has now grown in to a home for independent thought, and provides a library and archive on London history, labour and socialist history, free-thought and humanism, co-operation, and protest and campaigning. It has a public library which has journeyed through open access to closed access and back again, and has over 25,000 visitors a year with 120 per month visiting the special collections.

On entering the building I was struck by the inspirational quotes from famous figures dotting the walls, which I think introduces the revolutionary and open minded-theme of the library collection really well.Quote

The library itself has been largely untouched since it was built in the late 19th century, and is a beautiful traditional looking library with carved wooden bookcases and a glass dome. The library has over 80,000 books on London; particularly covering the working classes and the history of the East end, as well as many, many maps of London through the ages. It turns out that the first Bishopsgate librarian was a fanatical book collector on London (not the best hobby to have for a librarian with limited space and on some sort of budget!), and so now the library has become a unique collection shaped around the first librarian’s interests.Special collection

Not only does the collection include books and pamphlets as you may expect, but also any paraphernalia associated with the themes of the collection; such as the fishing tackle, glasses and wallet of Charles Bradlaugh, a 19th century political activist and atheist, African objects and possessions of Bernie Grant, a black Labour MP, the wetsuit worn by Trenton Oldfield when disrupting the Oxford-Cambridge boat race, and even the clothing he wore in prison (as modelled by the Chief Librarian below!) The library has a special collection and plays a role in preserving what may be valuable information about London for the future, such as over 150,000 photos of London, synagogue records, as well as London restaurant and take-away menus that may be of interest to generations yet to come. Much of the collection is still to be catalogued, and apparently letters of Charles Dickens have been discovered tucked away inside some of the books, so I can only imagine the hidden treasures still waiting to be discovered!

Chief Librarian modelling Trenton Oldfield's prison clothes

Chief Librarian modelling Trenton Oldfield’s prison clothes

The library operates with about 28 volunteers (mostly students and part time) with a paid team of 8, which again consist mostly of part time staff. I am certainly going to suggest to UCL, my old Library school, that it would be worth offering the Bishopsgate Institute Library as a destination for student placements or as a volunteering opportunity for anyone interested in special collections. It is an absolutely fascinating library with an incredible collection and in a beautiful library setting – I would very much recommend visiting it if you can, and I would like to thank CLSIG for the opportunity to learn about this hidden gem in the middle of the City of London.


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